Samford, Slavery, & Scripture
Last year, Samford University in Alabama canceled a speech by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Episcopal layman Jon Meacham due to objections from conservative Christians. This year, the school canceled his entire denomination.
More specifically, campus chaplains connected to the Episcopal Church and Presbyterian Church (USA) were denied space at a Church & Ministry Expo held on campus on August 31. A Baptist minister of a theologically progressive congregation also detailed her exclusion.
“We’ve done some version of Episcopal campus ministries and have been active at Samford for over 30 years. We have regularly participated in the ministry fairs,” Rev. Kelley Hudlow of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama said. “We are not allowed to do ministry on campus currently.”
The banishments appear related to the pro-LGBTQ stances of the respective denominations and ministries. According to Brit Blalock, founder of Students, Alumni, and Faculty for Equality at Samford, the Samford campus pastor who disinvited the groups “was explicit in saying that the reason was [one of the chaplain’s] denomination’s affirmative stance on LGBTQ people and did not mention any policies she was in violation of.”
The university responded by sending a letter to students claiming, “Throughout its history, the university has consistently subscribed to and practiced biblically orthodox beliefs.” The letter from Vice President of Student Affairs Philip Kimrey added that “the university has a responsibility to formally partner with ministry organizations that share our beliefs.”
Samford’s track record on LGBTQ issues is decidedly muddled. After provisionally recognizing an LGBTQ student group in 2017, the school faced backlash from the Alabama Baptist State Convention. Responding to the controversy, the administration refused to grant permanent status to the group and also declined funding from the Convention. Recommendations of a presidentially-appointed study group on sexuality have gone ignored.
After the new move excluding some groups from campus ministry, students led a protest outside the school’s mandatory weekly convocation service. And alumni are organizing a letter-writing campaign to the president, urging him “to return Samford to the ecumenically diverse and respectful campus it has been for decades.”
But something is missing from this conversation. Despite its claims to the contrary, the school has not “consistently subscribed to and practiced biblically orthodox beliefs.”
In this edition of A Public Witness, we take a closer look at the university’s past and find that its current justifications for excluding other Christians from campus rest on a revisionist whitewashing of its own history. After naming Samford’s struggle to face the ghosts in its proverbial closet, we look at attempts by other Christian institutions of higher education to exorcize similar demons. Then we consider the prophetic witness that Samford needs to heed, which actually emanated from its own campus this summer.
Samford’s Enslaver History
Samford’s history section on its website lists its four key founders in 1841, and they are honored on a monument at the entrance of the school’s chapel. But our research demonstrates why the school can’t claim in good faith they’ve adhered to biblical beliefs throughout its history.
First up is Edwin D. King, introduced as “a planter, businessman, and philanthropist.” He helped found the school, served on its board, and gave it lots of money. But we also find a caveat that helps explains his wealth: “Although Edwin also became a cotton planter with thousands of acres and hundreds of slaves, it was his investments in local businesses and schools that consumed much of his time.”
We checked the census data to learn more about King. In 1840 — the year before he helped start and fund the school — he enslaved 164 persons. There shouldn’t be any questions about how he obtained the money with which to be generous.
The second founder Samford lists is Rev. James Harvey DeVotie. He donated some land for the school’s first campus and served on the board of trustees. Although his biography on the site details numerous aspects of his ministry, including churches he pastored in Alabama and Georgia, it leaves out one role: his four years as chaplain in the Confederate Army. In fact, the biography jumps right from his pre-war church to his post-war church: “During his tenure in Columbus, and later at the Baptist church in Griffin, DeVotie emerged as one of the most important leaders in the Georgia Baptist Convention.” There’s a lot left unsaid in that comma between Columbus and Griffin.
We again checked the census data. In 1860, just before he served in the Confederacy, DeVotie enslaved nine persons while he also served as pastor of First Baptist in Columbus, Georgia. Samford’s online biography of him does not mention he enslaved people.
Samford’s third honored founder is Julia Tarrant Barron, who they note “became one of the wealthiest women in Marion.” Widowed several years before the founding of the school, Samford says Barron received “a large estate” from her late husband who was “a prosperous businessman.” She is credited not only with significant donations but also with bringing people together to plan the college’s launch.
But Samford’s history section doesn’t note a key part of her wealthy estate. The census data for the year before the school started reveals she enslaved 35 persons.
The fourth key founder Samford honors is Rev. Milo P. Jewett. The history section highlights that he had to leave Alabama and move to New York in 1855 “for political reasons” since “it was clear Jewett’s abolitionist beliefs did not fit in with the goals of the Southern Baptist Convention.” But there’s another side of Jewett left out. He also enslaved people.
We checked the census data and found that in 1850 he enslaved seven persons. The longer biography of him from Vassar College — the school he helped start and led as the first president after he moved to New York — offers a bit more detail, although with inaccurate language that downplays slavery: “Perhaps sensing the tensions which would culminate in the Civil War, Jewett relocated to the north, offering freedom to his own servants if they chose to move with his family.”
Beyond the key founders, a look at early presidents also reveals this trend in its history. Although Samford’s history site doesn’t mention it, the school’s early presidents were all enslavers.
The census data shows that Samuel Sterling Sherman, the president for the first decade, enslaved four persons in 1850 while president (two of whom would have been the ages of students on campus, though the school only accepted White students).
The school’s second president, Henry Talbird, led the school from 1853 until he left in 1862 to fight in the Confederate Army as a colonel. Just before the Civil War started, the census data shows that President Talbird in 1860 enslaved 10 persons, including a male the age of the students on campus.
We know a bit more about one of the individuals he enslaved. Harry is honored on Samford’s campus today because he died in 1854 while saving students from a fire. The school has evolved in the way it honors him. An older marker on campus referred to Harry as “college janitor and servant of President Talbird.” The new marker acknowledges slavery (though is generic about by whom): “an African American man who lived in slavery.”
After a leadership gap of a couple years as the president (and many of the students and faculty) left to fight for the Confederacy, the school’s third president started in 1865. Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry had resigned from the U.S. Congress when Alabama seceded from the Union, and then he fought in the Confederate Army. After the war, he became the president of the state Baptist convention and then of the college. But just before the war, the census data appears to show he enslaved 37 persons (there are two records with his name, one documenting 29 people and one on the next page showing another 8 in a separate entry, but he’s the only person by that name in the census for the county).
Other early presidents who followed also had fought for the Confederacy before leading the school. And there are likely numerous board members, professors, and other leaders at the institution who were enslavers and Confederate soldiers.
Nor did the history problem end with the Civil War. The school remained segregated until 1967 (and had even refused to participate in the federal student loan program the previous couple years since that would have required affirming desegregation). As this quick look at Samford’s past shows, the school’s history hardly exemplifies the practice of “biblically orthodox beliefs.”
Samford did not respond to our requests for comment.
Studies in Contrast
In 2020, Al Mohler repudiated himself. Disowning his previous defense of slavery, the prominent Southern Baptist leader labeled his comments as “stupid.” But his combinations only extend so far.
Mohler, a graduate of Samford, is the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. In 2018, SBTS released a 71-page report detailing how its four founders — James Boyce, John Broadus, Basil Manly Jr., and William Williams — together enslaved more than 50 persons. Additionally, Boyce served in the Confederate Army and Broadus was a Confederate chaplain.
Yet, those men are still honored today on campus with building names and even on memorabilia like coffee mugs. Prominent Black alumni of the school have called for the removal of these venerations. Resistance to that push emerged among White Calvinists, some of whom defended the founders on the basis that the Bible allowed slavery and defined appropriate behavior for those lacking their freedom. Mohler landed in the latter camp, supporting the retention of the names “because of the dedication of their lives and the inculcation of their theology into the lifeblood” of the seminary.
The path chosen by Mohler and SBTS stands in stark contrast to the witness of Virginia Theological Seminary. The Episcopal-related school announced in 2019 it would pay reparations to the families of enslaved Blacks who “built and sustained this institution” so that they could “reclaim a piece of that which was stolen from their ancestors.” The first distributions have already occurred even as the school continues to investigate its historic sins.
“When White institutions have to face up with the sins of their past, we’ll do everything we can to prevaricate, and we’ll especially prevaricate if it’s going to have some sort of financial implication,” Rev. Ian S. Markham, president and dean of the seminary, told the New York Times last year. “We wanted to make sure that we both not just say and articulate and speak what’s right, but also take some action — and we were committed to that from the outset.”
Noting its own legacy of benefiting directly and indirectly from slavery, Princeton Theological Seminary followed a similar course. It set aside more than $25 million from its endowment to fund scholarships and fellowships for students descended from enslaved persons.
“The Seminary’s ties to slavery are a part of our story. It is important to acknowledge that our founders were entangled with slavery and could not envision a fully integrated society,” explained PTS President M. Craig Barnes. “We are committed to telling the truth. We did not want to shy away from the uncomfortable part of our history and the difficult conversations that revealing the truth would produce.”
Following student protests, the school also removed the name of an enslaver from its chapel. (Perhaps Barnes should reach out to Mohler to assure him the change didn’t water down the school’s theology.)
The Jesuits have also focused on repentance for their past transgressions around higher education. Among other lamentations, the order of priests acknowledges how the labor and sales of enslaved persons played a critical role in the development of Georgetown University. They pledged $100 million to benefit the descendants of those who were enslaved and to fund other racial justice efforts, though students at Georgetown believe the effort is moving too slowly.
“This is an opportunity for Jesuits to begin a very serious process of truth and reconciliation,” Rev. Timothy P. Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States said last year. “Our shameful history of Jesuit slaveholding in the United States has been taken off the dusty shelf, and it can never be put back.”
VTS, PTS, and Georgetown are neither perfect nor the only examples. What they represent is that church-related institutions can wrestle with and atone for the racism of their past. But first they have to be honest about the reality of the sins committed by their institutional forebears. Even Mohler and SBTS at least investigated and openly acknowledged their history, even though they refuse to explore the next steps that other institutions are attempting.
Adding to these examples, Samford could also find inspiration from a prophetic witness offered on its own campus.
In July, one of us (Brian) spent a week on Samford’s campus to attend the annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance. This year’s meeting focused on issues of racial justice with remarks by South African anti-apartheid activist and theologian Allan Boesak and Equal Justice Initiative leader Bryan Stevenson.
During the gathering, the BWA passed a resolution encouraging slavery reparations (Brian is chair of the BWA’s Resolution Committee). It highlights biblical teachings on reparations and related passages on the sabbath year and year of jubilee. In addition to noting the violence of chattel slavery and its “enduring generational impacts,” the resolution recalls that “many Baptist clergy, laypersons, churches, and institutions supported chattel slavery with spurious theological claims and/or enriched themselves from the transatlantic slave trade and/or the enslavement of their fellow humans.”
The BWA thus called for action toward reparations. It urged Baptists to “participate in reparations conversations in their own communities and national governments.” And the resolution encourages Baptists to voluntarily lead the way. The resolution explains the BWA “calls on older Baptist churches, colleges, unions, and other institutions to thoroughly study their own history and publicly acknowledge institutional and leadership ties to chattel slavery, and then explore ways to repair the damage from previous support for and profiting from slavery.”
During discussion ahead of the vote, Brian noted the importance of the location where the debate and vote were occurring, specifically mentioning they were standing in the chapel of an institution founded and funded by enslavers with a monument honoring enslavers just outside the door. Baptists from around the world then voted to encourage institutions like Samford to examine their past, honestly acknowledge it, and begin efforts to repair the damage. The recent comments by Samford about its history demonstrate a need to take this encouragement seriously.
“It’s frankly shocking to hear any leader of an institution rooted in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention to flatly declare, without any sense of irony, that they have ‘consistently subscribed to and practiced biblically orthodox beliefs,’” Robert P. Jones, president and founder of PRRI, told us. “Deep in Samford’s and the SBC’s foundations is the uncomfortable truth that enslaving other human beings based on the color of their skin was ‘biblically orthodox belief.’ This conviction ran so deep that southern Christians were willing not only to die but to kill others to defend it.”
Jones, the author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity (and writer of the Substack newsletter White Too Long), connected this inaccurate view of history to the current controversy.
“I’m always stunned that this shameful history of Christian entanglement with White supremacy has not humbled every leader of institutions with roots in the Christian South. Especially coming from a leader of an educational institution, such claims reflect an inexcusable willful ignorance that substitutes rhetorical flourish for historical truth,” he told us. “Any honest conversation about LGBTQ-related issues or any big moral question of the day should begin not from a self-righteous and frankly arrogant claim of holding the high ground but from a place of humility that acknowledges just how wrong we’ve been on our assertions of ‘biblical orthodoxy’ in the past.”
Similarly, Lisa Sharon Harper, author of Fortune: How Race Broke My Family and the World — and How to Repair It All (and who writes the Substack newsletter The Truth Is...), told us that institutions like Samford need to tell the truth about their history.
“Healing requires repentance. Repentance requires truth-telling,” she explained. “Institutions like Samford are standing at a crossroads. Their choice has the power to bless or curse our nation and the church.”
Instead of throwing other Christians off their campus, it’s time for Samford’s leadership to heed the wisdom of the Baptists who gathered on their grounds in July.
As a public witness,
Brian Kaylor & Beau Underwood
(This piece has been updated to include a comment from Lisa Sharon Harper.)